Recalling my own Alaskan connection


I have been thoroughly enjoying the writings of Heather Lende, a newspaper reporter in small-town Haines, Alaska. Reading her observations has prompted me to give great thought to my own Alaskan-born cousins.
My dad’s only surviving sister, Miriam Young Slabaugh, and her husband, Bill, traveled to Alaska in 1967 when Miriam received a federal fellowship to study programs for disadvantaged youth at the University of Alaska.
Loving Alaska. The plan was to study there for a year and then return home with their young daughter, Laura, who had been born in 1964. Both Bill and Miriam fell in love with Alaska, and that one year turned in to more than 30 years.
My younger cousins, Julie and Ryan, were born there. Miriam has since said that her one and only regret is that we didn’t all get to spend more time together over the years.
Miriam received her master of education degree and was employed by the Fairbanks Schools. She coordinated the District Federal Chapter One program for disadvantaged readers over a span of 19 years.
Her husband worked for the University of Alaska physical plant. They were blessed to have good jobs, as so many who choose to remain in Alaska scramble for a variety of jobs just to survive.
Twenty questions. When we saw our Alaskan relatives, usually over long summer visits, I feel certain we drove them crazy with our questions.
Did they eat the same type of food that we ate? Did they ever have warm weather and sunshine? Did they know what it was like to go to the movies and a mall? Had they ever been to a McDonald’s and enjoyed a Big Mac and fries? Did they know anyone who built an igloo?
The answer to all of these questions, of course, was yes.
My aunt once said, in answer to all of our questions, “We have everything that you are wondering about and more. The one big difference is that every single thing costs much more in Alaska, because everything has to be shipped in from the Lower 48.”
Lower 48. It was odd for us to be referred to in this way. We were the “Lower 48” in ever so many conversations with my Aunt Miriam. Without ever saying this in so many words, I know that my dad wondered why anyone would want to live in such a remote part of the world.
Alaska had just become a state the year that I was born, and it seemed such uncharted territory to us.
Miriam described the most breathtaking views from their windows: a moose ambling down from the mountains, mountain goats and bear and caribou were a regular sight, and she would often tell of Bill and Ryan bringing home the most enormous fresh salmon caught just for their supper.
Couldn’t visit. My greatest regret is that we never had the chance to visit. Dad missed his sister, and would have loved to have seen her home and the dramatic scenery that she so often described, but the life of a dairy farmer revolves around a 365-day schedule with no time off for good behavior. There was simply never a time to get away.
Treasured keepsake. Near the end of his life, my dad corroborated with his sister on two books that she was so generously writing for us all to keep, collections of the history and genealogy of both sides of their family. This twin volume is a keepsake treasured beyond measure.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.